Not a day goes by now where I don’t come across a hilarious meme, story, joke or something out of the ordinary that tickles my soul in these tougher moments. I do my best to share the joy and laughter that others have given me in hope they can feel similar. So laugh. Laugh, and do what you can to make others laugh. Laughter may be considered a defense mechanism while plagued with anxiety, but if the end goal is to feel supported, connected and human — honestly, who cares right now. Have that type of childlike joy bridge the gap between you and others who may feel suffering right now.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jacob Kountz.
Jacob is the founder of Kern Wellness Counseling, an online resource for residents in his tight-knit community where he provides mental health and relationship information. His written works have been featured on Huffington Post, Reader’s Digest, Thrive Global, Martha Stewart Weddings, Practice of the Practice and more. As a California native of Bakersfield, he currently works for a local non-profit organization as a mental health therapist to serve his community of Kern County, Ca.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I’ve been listening and guiding good people for the better half of my life. I started in the world of academia helping college students navigate their way to the top for graduation. Then I shifted to providing motivational speeches for underclassmen that were struggling at the bottom. Who would have thought that after this I’d be introducing myself a clinical therapist? Not me. But, now I find complete satisfaction when someone gives me the time of day to climb down my ladder into some of their darkest parts of their life in order to meet them where they’re at. I have the opportunity to live a thousand lives, and so far it’s well worth it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Yes, I’ll never forget this day. It was a Friday morning. I was one of the newest therapists on our small clinical adult team and I got a knock on my door from one of our engagement counselors. She told me that all the other therapists were either out of the office or with clients, and there was a crisis that needed attending to. I thought to myself: “Hope they’ve got someone experienced to handle it!” In reality, this meant her asking me if I could be that person, of course. I said in a shaky voice: “Sure, bring em’ in.”
As soon as this person entered and sat four feet across my anxious demeanor, they told me they didn’t want to live anymore and had a plan to end their life after sitting with me. What a way to start a Friday morning, right? Something I still can’t put my finger on sparked in me during that moment. Even though I worked with people who’ve experienced suicidal thoughts before, for some odd reason this felt like another level of concern. I don’t know. Maybe it was fate, but I realized in that moment that rather than me trying to give them reasons to live, my gut told me they needed to be the one to find those reasons. They needed to see that they have innate worth to keep going. Believe it or not, but close human contact and enough silence can give a lot of struggling people a moment to answer life’s toughest questions: “What’s enough to keep me alive today?”
I’m happy to report that this person comes into my office still to this day, and after 10 hard working months, they enter my office with their head held up high with many more reasons to live. People are more resilient than we give them credit for.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
I am fortunate enough to work for a company that thrives due to a cornerstone factor — flexibility. In other words, look for areas within a work culture that have been stagnant, and give it an update with a trial and error system. For instance, I’ve worked for companies that usually have one mouthpiece at the end of the table as the rest of us are jotting down notes. Sure, this process does get some of the job done, but if you want your work culture to develop, it’s going to take some flexibility such as having other associates run their own meetings.
It’s good for leaders to take a step back at times to recall the moment he or she decided to hire their candidates for open positions. Take that same moment you gave them the opportunity to work for you, and give them other opportunities to share what they think could be beneficial for the company. This gives your associates a chance to develop their public speaking skills, gets their creativity juices flowing, and it may help spark newer ideas for future speakers around the room. Being flexible with how a business should run and shifting into a more open, flexible environment can do wonders for any work culture.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Yes! The One Thing by Gary Keller. This book made such a significant impact on me because it simply straightened me out. I used to be a jack of all trades and a master of none until I gave this a read. Before I got the hang of academia, motivational speaking, and even providing therapy, my mind was jumping from topic to topic as it would derail of the tracks — I thought I was making sense while the world was scratching their heads. I could have crashed as there were many moments where I could have ruined my career. I wasn’t able to get any project I started finished and I was struggling with task switching. But after reading this book from start to finish, without skipping sections, I now have the ability to maintain clear, uninterrupted focus.
The book’s main message is this: What is the one thing you can attempt and achieve today in order to make tomorrow that much easier? Simple as that. For example, there’s a good image in the earlier part of the book that highlights how physics plays a role in how we develop ourselves. They take a block and place it next to a block that’s 50% larger than that, and so on and so forth. Think of how cell phones are “raising the bar” here. Physics says if you were to push the little block over, it’s strong enough to push down the next block that’s 50% larger, and then that block knocks down something 50% larger than that one. Sure, it’s rudimentary, but now I break down my largest goals into miniature ones I can complete daily, and complete them. A total win-win! There are dozens of other helpful techniques in the book, but for those who are struggling to focus or are lost in identifying the one thing they think life is worth striving for, read this book.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
The state of being mindful is to actively be present in one’s mind, body, and spirit. Luckily, I have enough good practice with this process because I teach my client’s on a daily basis. To be mindful is to simply be. All of us have the opportunity to time travel in the past and future with our minds since we’re sapient creatures, but being mindful is your attempt to be as present as humanly possible. Don’t worry, you may drift off here and there because random thoughts do that. But the point is that you’re trying to be intentionally present, and the more you are aware of that process the closer you’ll be in becoming mindful.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
Let’s take the position that you, or someone you know experiences intense anxiety and fear of the future. Physically, their chest may become constricted. Mentally, their mind is racing at 100mph. Emotionally, they feel keyed up and stuck in their tracks. An immediate benefit of becoming mindful is in the process of letting go, and achieving a powerful calm. Think about it. With a racing mind that fast forwards you into a scary future, all you want to do is try and control it. But, time and time again the more you try the faster it seems to go, and you feel out of control.
With mindfulness, the goal is to practice the opposite of being in control. Rather than grabbing uncomfortable thoughts with tight fists, try to let go — you’ll feel more in control than ever. Once a person is able to achieve the power of letting go, that fast heartrate will drop down to normal levels. That racing mind will seem almost slow motion as you become present again. You’ll even notice that it becomes harder for your emotions to get the better of you due to your body and thoughts relaxing.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
1. Identify what’s bothering you in the moment
In order to begin the process of developing helpful skills such as mindfulness, it’s going to take some work in figuring out what’s getting to you in the moment. Simply put, serenity can be found if we allow it. Mindfulness and serenity can be achieved once we move whatever is going on in our minds out of the way. This can be achieved when you attempt to try your best to be as present as you possibly can. Staying present means taking limited times each day to focus on noticing what’s going on — without fully attaching to it, or judging it. Often, I try to find good landscapes in my city that has beautiful scenery to practice mindfulness at. I sit on a bench, carry a pen in my hand and begin rubbing it while noticing the few things happening right in front of me in the present. As soon as I notice a thought that’s trying to take me to the past or future, I just notice it and try not to attach any judgement to it — eventually it disappears. It’s pretty easy for me to get this overwhelming sense of calm in those short moments since I’ve put in enough practice. And trust me, it’s worth it. Figure out what’s plaguing your mind and allow it sit there without adding more comments toward it.
2. Judge it for what it is
I notice pandemonium in the news and uncertainty in whoever watches it, including myself. But, I’m trying to be mindful here, right? I’ve got to do something about these thoughts. In order to achieve mindfulness while in this state, I’m going to judge this thought for what it truly is — just a random thought. Sometimes, I notice beliefs in my mind such as “We’re not gonna make it,” but it’s good practice to then call it as it is and say it’s a random thought that doesn’t have complete truth. And no, I’m not trying to be naïve or pollyanna. This is just what it looks like to be mindful of thoughts and not completely attaching yourself to it. This is how mindfulness develops. There’s not permanent decisions being made in this process such as, “We’re all goners.” This is just something each of us can practice in order to make each day a little bit more livable. And when practiced enough, mindfulness and serenity can slowly occur. Remember, just the thought for what it is — an idea that hasn’t entered reality.
3. Put a good amount of space between you and it
I think it’s easy to let anxiety and fear take over when each of us are plagued with news alerts on a daily basis. The issue here is that with enough ongoing exposure will make it that much more real in our minds. It’s not so obvious to me what most of us are thinking during this time with COVID-19, but one can only guess. My hunch is that most fear catching it and think: “I could be that one who gets it” or “I will probably get it and end up in the hospital” and “I’m going to die.” These are legitimate fears that are bolstered because of where we place our focus. A good thing to do here is to practice putting some space between you and these harsh thoughts. This can look something like, “Okay, I’m noticing that I’m having the thought right now of ‘I’m going to die.’” This is probably more preferable than thinking, “I’m going to die today.” Saying “I’m having the thought of” places quite a bit of helpful space between you and a pestering thought — and it’s your attempt to be mindful. I try to practice this with the thoughts I get after someone shares with me local bad news. It’s still scary, but when you’re intentionally trying to do something about your own thought process, it can be empowering.
4. Feed the right wolf each day
Many of my clients have shared with me their fears of either catching the coronavirus or someone they love catching it. And most often I hear the worst of the worst without a hint of something remotely positive — and I don’t blame them. I tend to ask the same metaphorical question over and over in an attempt to give some perspective about these difficult fears: “Which wolf are you feeding? Are you feeding the one that will be more helpful for you, or the one that will hinder you today?” In other words, what we focus on grows. It can be as simple as that. The more we pivot our mental state toward the worst of the worst catastrophes that our mind has the unfortunate ability to create, the easier it is to grow anxiety and fear as we recluse back into isolation. On the other hand, if you focus on feeding the wolf that will help you by reminding you of the good and hope in your day, then you may find it easier to move through each moment. Be mindful during this process and pay attention to what thoughts appear and how often you water negative thoughts. Remember, what you focus on will grow.
5. Keep up this new routine
I was originally told that mindfulness was just a bunch of mumbo jumbo pseudo-theory. I’ll be first to raise my hand because I used to be one of these people who did think that. Even after practicing more and more I still wasn’t committed to the idea that fear, loneliness and anxiety can diminish if I work hard in being present. As of today, I am happy that I kept up the routine. In order to develop mindfulness and serenity during uncertain times isn’t such a walk in the park. This type of invisible process will take gradual time, effort and some faith in the process. Simply set aside time each day to intentionally attempt being present in that particular moment. Walk outside, sit in the shade and just be. Do this for a few minutes at a time per day and once you feel you’ve got the hang of it, increase your time. Soon enough, both you and others will know that between 2:30PM-3:00PM is your time to practice mindfulness, and obtaining serenity. Get that routine going and make boundaries with others so you can really achieve it.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
1. Share your experience
Whenever I step out to go grocery shopping the very first thing I notice about others is this expression of uncertainty. Such as when a child is first learning to tie their shoes, you can tell they’re struggling and at the same time they want to figure it out on their own. This brings me to the importance of sharing your experience with others. Even though humans have the ability to time travel in their own minds, we still can’t read others’ minds — thank goodness for that. So, rather than assuming how others are taking in their own COVID-19 experience, share your own. Regardless if the content is good, bad, or ugly, there’s a high probability that what you share may resonate with at least one person in the room. Who knows, maybe sharing that one experience hit home with someone who was too afraid to express themselves — talk about vicarious learning.
2. Find that non-anxious self
A great mentor once told me that I’m not going to be a great therapist solely due to my years of clinical training and technical practice. She told me that my own greatness is achieved when client’s find their calm state due to my “non-anxious presence.” It took me awhile to figure out what she meant by this until I started noticing how others act around me after speaking for a few minutes. I’ve noticed people generally chill out while in dialogue with myself, and I’ve got mindfulness to thank for that. Essentially, with any group of people you will get different levels of temperament. Highs, lows and inbetweeners. And even if you don’t consider yourself of having a non-anxious presence, that’s okay. You can get there with being mindful. Earlier, we discussed the process of allowing ourselves to be as present as possible to find serenity. Not only is mindfulness achieved with this process, but so is finding your very own non-anxious presence. You’d be surprised at what can happen to a room full of anxious people when one of them has the ability to give off this non-anxious temperament. Just as smiles are contagious, so are non-anxious people.
3. Laugh when possible
It is through these darker times when it can seem like laughter isn’t one of our first choices to feel better. For the first few weeks of the pandemonium there were moments where I did feel lost and isolated in my own experience. But, thank goodness for the internet and those creative types who were brave enough to share their humor. Not a day goes by now where I don’t come across a hilarious meme, story, joke or something out of the ordinary that tickles my soul in these tougher moments. I do my best to share the joy and laughter that others have given me in hope they can feel similar. So laugh. Laugh, and do what you can to make others laugh. Laughter may be considered a defense mechanism while plagued with anxiety, but if the end goal is to feel supported, connected and human — honestly, who cares right now. Have that type of childlike joy bridge the gap between you and others who may feel suffering right now.
4. Embrace the ordinary
I’m a 90s kid. Which means I can recall the days of riding bikes with no helmets, wrestling with other neighborhood kids, and my boardgames were your todays Minecraft and Fortnite. These were my simpler times. Interestingly enough, I found myself going down memory lane while looking at what the past few months have been like. I’ve come to the conclusion that we may need to embrace the ordinary for the time being to obtain some sense of serenity. And I knew this wasn’t going to be easy for others to hear, but it’s meaningful, I think. In the case for supporting others who are experiencing a tough time, try to remind them of the smaller things to re-embrace again. These things can look like having tea parties with the kids or spouse, playing boardgames, a good game of tag with those you’re in quarantine with, journaling, meditation, or some other activity that attempts to bring you back to your day of the ordinary. Share these simpler times with those around you for ongoing support.
5. We’re all in this together
I think it’s easy to forget that what we’re experiencing right now in this point of time is global. I’m uncertain what continent is not affected right now which feels so crazy to say out loud. Locally, many of us may have scoffed at the idea of overbuying toilet paper like “those other people,” only for that belief to be shattered while walking down an isle that had three packs of Charmin left: “Maybe, we should buy these just in case.” Just remember, we’re all in this together. Day by day I’m told stories of friends making care packages for other friends after they found out they have less than they do. My social media accounts are hit with daily challenges, family tagging me in older photos and shared videos that make me laugh until I’m in tears. And I think it’s a pretty good idea to remind those around you that we are all trying to do our best to figure out how to live in this odd abnormality we call the present. The more we attempt to accept that there are good people out there sharing what’s been helpful for them, the easier I think this experience will be. Even during this conversation, I can say that I haven’t been cognizant of my heavier feelings toward the coronavirus. This exemplifies the power of practicing being present with helpful thoughts and good conversation.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
I advise all my clients to look into Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This type of theoretical orientation utilizes the power of being mindful by accepting what is out of our control and attempting to commit to actions that align with our value system. This is the linchpin in being more mindful and serene in our everyday lives. Other resources that are good are Headspace, a powerful mindfulness app, and YouTube which has hundreds of videos dedicated to mindfulness, techniques to help decrease feelings of anxiety and finding your own personal calm. For those who are in the beginning stages of this process, also check out a song called “Weightless” by Marconi Union. Research has found fascinating results with this song and how it’s shown to help decrease levels of anxiety and can help produce a more calming temperament in the moment. However, be careful listening to it if you’re driving — some people have actually fallen asleep to this song.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
The quote I most often rely on is by a late psychoanalyst named Carl Jung: “No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” This quote has given me both fear and motivation for dozens of reasons. For a very long time I was in search of happiness because for the first half of my life I felt as if I was in the dark. I had no motivation, nothing to strive for and was living each day as if it wasn’t my last. It was mediocre and had no gravitas. It wasn’t so obvious to me what I was meant to do — though good luck answering that question in a day. But, day after day it was as if I was not taking this one life as seriously as I could have.
The quote, though I probably take it out of context, shows me that many of us navigate through some dark experiences in ourselves before finding a glimmer of light. Sometimes we’ve got to come to the end of ourselves before we can begin a newer path toward our own heaven. I find myself sharing this quote with my clients often as many of them are still searching for what is meaningful. Each time I get the chance to talk about it is a nice reminder of the personal hells I’ve came out of — bruised and broken — only to have found a more meaningful route.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think if I were to start something, chances are I wouldn’t be the first, but it would have to be something deeply meaningful. Like seeking hard truths. Not in the sense of “this is my truth,” a popular line I hear often. But in the way of confronting hard, personal truths like atonement for something. Such as the hard truth that I confronted years ago when I told myself that I was not what I could be. That I could be more than who I was in that moment. That there’s more to a single day than meets the eye. That in order to become what I consider my ideal self will require me to confront difficult truths such as living life as if it were a demanding adventure rather than mediocre at best. Could you imagine where most of us could be tomorrow if we pushed ourselves to be at least 1% better today? It’s hard to say what it is others need to work on because I think that’s their job to figure out, that’s their adventure, not mine. They know the hard truths they need to confront because their fears won’t entirely match my own. It’s a personal journey. I think that this process could bring the most amount of good and life satisfaction to a lot of lost people. I would know. I was one of them and still have my moments of trying to navigate uncharted territory scared out of my mind. But hey, what’s the alternative to not giving it your all?
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
People can find me on most major social media like LinkedIn, Facebook and a good ol’ Google search of my name. They can also find me on the website link provided at the beginning of the interview.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
This was such a grand opportunity and I’m thankful we both found the time to get it complete. This was reflective for me in so many ways, so thank you for that. Fingers crossed we all can keep pushing forward to the best of our abilities so more stories like this can be shared. I’m inspired all the time by coming across healthy dialogue, and my hope is that this conversation can grab at least one person’s attention for a moment. Thanks again, and take care.